Wealth of Nations September 2005

An America I Never Expected to See

The incompetence—the sustained, systemic, outrageous incompetence—that marked the government's response to Hurricane Katrina is genuinely hard to believe.

In my time as a journalist in Britain, before moving to Washington this summer, I more or less made a career of defending American supremacy (and not just in the economic realm) to skeptical or downright hostile Europeans. I admire the United States so much, I tell my puzzled American friends (who mostly seem to be liberals), that I am even willing to give the Bush administration a chance to explain itself—a vanishingly rare thing in the part of the world I come from, and a pretty rare thing, for that matter, in much of Washington. I resist the label "conservative," but my instinct is certainly to praise the country and give this White House, like any other, a hearing. And so I stand before you this week, having followed events in New Orleans with mounting incredulity, a sad and disillusioned man.

I still find this epic of incompetence—sustained, systemic, outrageous incompetence—genuinely hard to believe. If you had told me that the flooding of the city would be followed by day after day of chaos, with officials at every level incapable of any effective action; if you had told me that an uncounted number of dead bodies would be floating in the street days after the levees were breached, while huge crowds of abandoned victims, filmed from helicopters, clamored for food and water, with not a police officer or a soldier or an emergency worker of any kind to be seen; if you had said that as the country watched all of this go on, and on, and on, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency should appear on television to tell open-mouthed news anchors how pleased he was that everything was going so well—if you had described all of this to me ahead of time, I would have said you were crazy. In Italy (forgive my British prejudices), maybe such a thing could be imagined. In Bangladesh, well, sadly yes—until foreigners, preferably led by Americans, arrived to help. But in the United States? For heaven's sake, it simply could not happen.

And the more one watched and read and thought about this, the more perplexing it became. Because this was no hitherto-inconceivable catastrophe. It had been imagined, it had been foreseen, it had been predicted in detail. It had even been—or so one supposes—planned for. Think of that. The authorities, even though many have tried to deny it, knew this was coming. Nonetheless, they were paralyzed when the disaster struck, and who knows how many people died needlessly as a result? It is literally incredible.

It is also terrifying, because the flooding of New Orleans is not the only foreseen, planned-for disaster that Americans need to be contemplating right now. Imagine a radiological bomb in Chicago, or an effective biological or chemical attack on New York City. Is the terrible anarchy of the days following the hurricane, played to the same soundtrack of surreal official complacency, what residents of those cities should expect if or when such catastrophes occur?

The focus on that question should now be remorseless, but it doesn't help that people, determined to bend what has happened to some pre-existing agenda, are reaching for larger theories of what went wrong in New Orleans. Blame the war in Iraq, some have argued, for stretching resources too thin—stranding troops and equipment overseas, when they were needed at home, and leaving no money for shoring up the city's infrastructure. Or put it down to racism. Why hurry to help, the authorities are supposed to have asked themselves, when the victims are nearly all black? Or even this, if you can believe it: Look to the exaggerated individualism of the age, the disdain for collective action and for the idea of the greater good. This is the kind of thing that happens only when countries think of government as a problem rather than as a solution.

Even the normally sensible Joe Klein decided on this approach in an essay for Time this week. In "Listen to What Katrina Is Saying," Klein wrote:

There was, last week, an immediate and furious debate about the racial implications of the tragedy.... There were recriminations about the lack of preparedness for the disaster.... But those arguments can be neatly folded into a larger discussion about the radical turn toward what is inaccurately described as "conservatism" that American politics took in the late 20th century.... The new philosophy of governance was stated most crudely in 1987 by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: "There is no such thing as society.... There are individual men and women, and there are families."

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